From The Blog

Mission Monthly – October 2005

“A time of trial is beneficial to everyone: the diligent are tried so that their wealth may increase; the lax, so that they be preserved from harm; those spiritually asleep, so that they may prepare themselves for watchfulness; those who are far from God, so that they may approach Him; those who are God’s close associates, so that they may come closer to Him in freedom of speech.”

St. Isaac the Syrian

“A time of trial is beneficial” Undoubtedly there are many who view this kind of thinking as absurd, or even those who see it as just another ploy of “the church” to keep people under control. They ask why being put to the test would be considered in any way beneficial; and yet it is often these same people who trumpet the virtues of courage and perseverance in the challenges of business, academics, athletics and the like. As a priest I am blessed with the honor of helping to support and guide people during times of various testing. Because of this privilege I find myself often meditating on the meaning of trials and tests – and the hypocrisy of seeing spiritual trials as absurd and worldly trials as honorable.

I played organized sports from a young age, going on to letter in varsity athletics in high school and college. I’ve heard many “Go get ’em!” speeches. I’ve had many victories and more losses than I care to admit. I’ve been recognized and awarded for my effort and performance and I’ve been harshly reprimanded for my failures and laziness. I value my experience, be it the conditioning of my body, the discipline of teamwork or the challenge towards personal excellence. If this was all I knew I believe I would be more impressed when I hear sports analysts tout the courage of athletes who rise above adversity. However, the world of sports is vastly bigger than my experience and I must admit how tired I get of hearing sappy praise heaped upon the athlete who leads his or her team to victory despite an injury, illness or personal tragedy. A very close friend of mine once had the opportunity to attend the alumni dinner of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was shocked to see many of those men of heroic esteem now old before their time and crippled from years of bodily abuse in pursuit of professional football excellence. These men subjected themselves to a time of trial and in one way or another they succeeded, and the athletic world has elevated them to the status of legend. These “tests” and other worldly trials are seen as completely normal and even desirable. I suppose because worldly success generally brings honor within one’s lifetime whereas the trials mentioned by St. Isaac, even if there is “success”, generally are inconvenient and do not offer “honor” in this world. I may have gleaned a few lessons from my athletic experience, but pretty much all that remains from those days is a body suffering from the chronic pain of injury and a few dusty awards and memories.

Please forgive my meandering down memory lane. The point I am trying to make is really quite simple. It is frustrating to see within myself and in many people various levels of blindness in not accepting the need and benefit of spiritual trials— of entering the arena of Christian life with the discipline of an athlete so that we might fully live God-centered lives! It is so much easier to take on an athletic challenge, or a project at work or home, or the pursuit of a diploma or degree. Consider how many of our young people “take a break” from the life of the Church during their college years and how this is somehow acceptable because of their “honorable” pursuit of education! Or how our even younger children are asked to sacrifice ongoing Sundays for the sake of athletic tournaments, again for an “honorable” cause!

St. Paul even uses the example of athletics to describe a faith-centered life. “Do you not know that in a race all runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

The saddest aspect of our blindness is how often we settle for the “perishable” over the “imperishable”. When I see myself or others so eager to take on the challenges of personal interest and yet so reluctant to take on the challenges of repentance—acknowledging our failures in loving our spouses; respecting our parents; forgiving those who have hurt us; showing compassion to those who are suffering; sharing with those in need; living with strong morals; striving for regular worship, prayer, stewardship, fasting and scripture reading; and so on— I ask myself, “Can’t we see where the real challenges of life are to be found and be assured of the benefits we receive from taking them on?” Truly there is no greater challenge than that of spiritual warfare, and the true mark of a man is to forsake his natural inclination to “perishable” ambition. But this requires a willingness to see, and if we cannot see then a willingness to do the things necessary to acquire true vision.

St. Paul said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). As Christians we will not be crowned unless we willingly share in the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. What this means is that we must actively seek the path of our salvation and never shy away from our spiritual trials or view them as absurd or meaningless. Rather our trials to live and follow faithfully the commandments of our Lord must be seen as the way for each of us to enter into the greatest challenge of life: to die with Christ so that we might live with Him, forever.